Alex Clifford

Metra CEO Alex Clifford talks to reporters in his office in April of this year. Clifford, whose performance has been under review by the Metra board for months, resigned today. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / April 9, 2013)

The Regional Transportation Authority will have the first shot next week at breaking the secrecy concerning Metra's decision to grant its departed CEO a controversial $740,000 severance deal.

As oversight agency for the three area transit agencies, the RTA said Tuesday that it has asked Metra's chairman to appear at a special meeting to explain the decision to end CEO Alex Clifford's tenure and award him a golden parachute.

The meeting Wednesday could elicit the first public insight into the apparent rift between Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran and Clifford, and what prompted the agency's board to agree to pay Clifford hundreds of thousands of dollars to leave.

RTA officials would not comment Tuesday on the meeting. John Gates Jr., the chairman, directed the RTA's staff last week to begin a detailed review of the separation agreement "to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being expended properly."

In a statement issued through a spokesman, O'Halloran said Tuesday that he appreciated the opportunity to address the RTA board.

"I will discuss the recent separation agreement for our former executive director … as well as the Metra board's plans to move the agency forward to improve the reliability of service for our commuters and the region," he said.

It was unclear whether Clifford would appear at the meeting. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Metra's board members have refused to publicly spell out the reasons for Clifford's departure or discuss details of the agreement. The settlement was reached after lengthy closed-door discussions.

As first reported by the Tribune, the separation agreement contains a provision binding both sides to confidentiality. It pledges that neither Metra not Clifford "will disclose the terms or any other circumstance" relating to the negotiation of the agreement.

A clause in that provision, however, makes an exception for "entities with oversight, legislative or other authority over Metra."

That loophole would open the door for the RTA to air the controversy publicly.

RTA board members said privately that they welcomed the opportunity to have an inquiry into the controversy that would be fair to both sides.

"I'm troubled by the secrecy part," said one official, who asked not to be identified. "I'm also troubled that (Clifford's) being paid over and above what he is owed."

Clifford is leaving Metra with eight months left on his $252,500-a-year contract. His contract also calls for six months' salary as severance, including two 3 percent raises.

Other officials will have opportunities for hearings into the matter.

Three state representatives plan to call Metra board members before a legislative hearing as early as next week.

Rep. Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, said she and Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, hope to schedule a joint committee hearing on the issue in Springfield if the General Assembly reconvenes in special session to address the state's pension crisis.

If there is no special session, the legislators will call a hearing on Metra later this month in Chicago.

Mell said some members of the panel she chairs on mass transit "weren't happy with Metra" about the action and the gag order involving the agreement.

"Hopefully, we'll get some answers," she said.